[MJR] Litfests: Boon or bane for Indian book market?

01 Mar,2012

By Yogi Aggarwal


Literary events do not, as a rule, make news and are normally assigned just a paragraph or so in the inside pages of newspapers. Not the Jaipur literary festival (JLF), now in its sixth year.


Its organisers have an eye for easy publicity, and the knack of drawing record crowds. It’s fast approaching the bustle and energy of a mela, with an attendance of over one lakh visitors during the five day jamboree last month.


Either there has been a sudden spurt of interest in books, or the people just come to have some fun, as they do at the largely low-brow Kala Ghoda festival in Mumbai. Though literary events such as those recently started in Mumbai,KarachiandHyderabaddo help to sell some books, none has the drawing power or the induced magic of the JLF.


Is the JLF in the envious position of attracting certain top writers, which then bring it to the attention of the media, or is it the media hype than brings in the writers? The latter is unlikely to be the case since the Indian market for books is still a small one. And despite the presence of several distinguished mix of writers, only one person has the reputation to generate a large crowd-pulling controversy – Salman Rushdie.


It was his attendance at JLF in 2007 which led to vastly increased numbers at the fest in the following years, and it was the motivated opposition to his presence in Jaipur or even to a video conference that took the JLF to the top league in such events around the world.


William Dalrymple, the impresario who runs the show, maintains that literary fests like the one in Jaipur have the effect of “putting literature back at the centre” and that such fests are part of the exponentially expanding book market inSouth Asia.


Both are questionable statements. Literary fests do lead to some interaction between writers and readers, and this may even help the writers understand their audience, but at the signing that accompany the sales of books at the venue at most a few score copies are sold, hardly putting literature back at the centre.


It is also debatable whether the book market is expanding exponentially in our region. There are certainly a larger number of fiction titles being published. But most of them sink without going into a second print.


The reason for the proliferation of these literary melas is twofold. First, they provide yet another celebrity event to fill the pages of our newspapers, most of whom have abandoned their role of informing and educating their readers, to pandering to their prejudices and serving salacious stories. Second, they are a tonic for our increasingly jaded elite.


For this reason the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie was the perfect marketing gimmick. While Rushdie himself thrives on the opportunity to be in the public eye, this occasion was the more central since it highlighted the conflict between “diehard mullahs” and “freedom of expression”.


The media helped fuel the dichotomy by only giving space to a fundamentalist fringe, ignoring the large number of Muslim liberals. The heat and the large public interest & debate this generated will surely make the next JLF even bigger than before.

All this does not leave the author any better off. Nor does it generate a genuine interest in the ideas that books are meant to foment.


Just before the JLF, there was a similar event in Mumbai. Organised by a large media conglomerate, it was a successful mela with all the attendant frills of book signings, meet the author events, food courts and milling crowds. Surely it is another JLF in the making, and a bigger one too at that, considering the influential and well-funded backing, and its location in Mumbai.


It is ironic that the media conglomerate has no space or time for books. It stopped reviewing them years ago since “our readers aren’t interested”. Intelligent and fair reviews by a dedicated lot of critics, complete with author interviews on a weekly books page or even section are necessary for the growth of an informed readership.

Melas can be useful but cannot replace this essential perquisite of a literate, book-reading culture.


Yogi Aggarwal is a veteran journalist.


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One response to “[MJR] Litfests: Boon or bane for Indian book market?”

  1. Sushil Kumar Mendiratta says:

    Hello Yogi, how are you? It is an interesting piece. I was in Jaipur around that time and followed the controversy. The whole thing made me disappointed; how we are following the easy path of the lustre and have little time to do serious thinking! Now I am retired and have more time to read. I am not on face book etc. but would like to receive a note from you. skm@ua.pt. Sushil